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China’s lack of concern for the safety of children

For the last month, there has been a raging debate over child abuse. It started when Yan Yanhong posted pictures of herself abusing her own kindergarten students; the pictures were taken by her co-worker, Tong Qingqing. She picked her students up by the ears, put children upside-down in garbage cans, and taped their mouths shut for “being disobedient,” and in other cases “just for fun.” Far more disturbing, was that Yan Yanhong forced her 4-5 year old students to strip, dance, and kiss each other (People’s daily reported several times on this story when it broke 1,2,3,4).

This is just one of dozens of child abuse cases involving teachers. In Shanxi a girl was slapped in the face for nearly 10 minutes for failing to correctly add 1 and 10. In neighboring Sha’anxi, a 4-year old boy was cut by his teacher for not performing his morning exercises well, while in Nanjing a teacher used a hot iron on the faces of seven children.

Despite this despicable behavior, not a single one of these teachers has been tried for child abuse. According to China’s criminal codes, child abuse is only a crime if it is done by a family member, meaning that Yan Yanhong and other teachers have to be tried under sections of code like “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” The paper however fails to mention it is exceedingly rare for family members to be tried for child abuse, as police routinely dismiss it as a “family matter.”

However, a month later, People’s Daily is reporting that these teachers were found not guilty of criminal activity. About which the mother was understandably shocked saying, “It is so unfair that the teachers who abused the children for fun will not be punished for their bad behavior, and it will not act as a deterrent to other teachers involved in similar cases.”

When one combines China’s legal loopholes that allow for children to be abused by teachers and family members, and a seeming lack of concern over child abductions, one begins to wonder whether children are valued by China’s legal system. This seems unimaginable  given Chinese society’s emphasis on the importance of children, and yet the system remains broken.

This is one of many factors contributing to the growing unrest in China – a sense that children, the family’s most valuable asset, is not valued by the state. The state does seem to be acutely aware of the need to protect children as they moved to increase security in schools to prevent stabbings, and the rush to execute the men supposedly behind the melamine scandal. However, cases like the one involving Yan Yanhong remind parents of their own vulnerability in a country where the rule of law is not applied evenly.

Their vulnerability is again connected to the state’s one child policy. As the Global Times exposed in this heart breaking account, families whose children have died are only entitled to an allowance of 80 yuan per month (some counties are higher, but this is the national standard).

Hopefully, these recent scandals help to close the loopholes, but for now China’s children are far from being protected by the law. It seems difficult to dream of human rights in China when, after 60 years, there are still no basic protections for children.

News Story of the Week

There has been a recent movement in China to use social media to try to free abducted children, as well as child beggars. Initially these stories made the front page of the People’s Daily, but according to China Digital Times, the gov’t has become concerned that these stories are starting to make it seem that they aren’t doing much to stop these abductions.

In what would seem to be a very grim story, there does seem to be a bright spot. The All-China Women’s Federation, together with UNICEF is looking to establish a temporary guardianship system (something like foster care) for abused and abducted children.

I had reported a month ago on the dire situation in China related to child abuse, and the lax system that was content to call it a “private matter” that was not something the police should be involved with.

This call for a new system, seems to be the first step of a long journey towards protecting China’s children. Hopefully the gov’ts growing concern over its image will force them to take concrete actions soon (for now it’s just a proposal).

Abuse in Rural China

This is part 3 of a series on childhood in rural China. Part One. Part Two.

I tried writing this part of the series earlier this weekend, but got stuck every time I tried to find a way to change the topic to one that would help balance it out. Nothing worked. I finally decided that it was a story that needed to be told, and that to soften it in any way, would be a disservice to the students who lived it.

Child abuse in rural China is rampant. From the stories I’ve heard from students I would say that more than half of them were physically or verbally abused. Some of the time it is at the hands of their grandparents or other relatives, or by their teachers, but often it is their own parents.

The first thing you need to understand with this issue is that China has no law concerning child abuse (Note: There are provisions about Minors in the Chinese constitution, but they do not provide any means of actually protecting children). This was highlighted by a case in 2009 in which a young girl was tortured by her parents, but they never faced a criminal trial because there was no law that could be used against them. Under the present law another family member would have to sue the parents, which almost never happens. China also has no equivalent of Child Protective Services, so in the case of the young girl, her mother was never held by police, since she had 3 other children to “raise”.

I had the chance to talk about child abuse with some teachers in Yizhou one night, and asked them how they disciplined their children. They laughed about it, like people often do when they are confronted with something personal and uncomfortable. One of them told me that when his 6 year-old daughter was “naughty”, he would make her kneel on the concrete floor for 1-2 hours. Another said that when her 16 year-old son wouldn’t listen to her she would punch him in the arm or slap his face. Others talked about using a piece of bamboo to whip their children.

The attitude seems to be fairly similar in the cities. The other week brought forward yet another case of teachers abusing their students. In this case a kindergarten teacher burned 7 of her students on the face with a hot iron because they had been “naughty”. I talked with my co-worker, Grace, about this, expecting her to be outraged since her daughter is the same age as those who were burned. Instead she took the teacher’s side, “What else could she do?” Grace said, “They weren’t listening to her.”

Children can be criticized for almost anything. I even had a friend whose father didn’t talk to him for a week because he needed glasses. The father had shouted “How could you be so careless! You should have protected your eyesight!”

Note: the next two stories are disturbing.

One of Kyle’s students had been left behind in the countryside to live with her aunt and uncle while her parents worked in the factories of the East Coast. One day a neighbor came to the house and claimed that she had killed one of their chickens, and she insisted that she hadn’t. As a result of her “insolence” her uncle beat her so badly that she lost a tooth. When she called her parents crying about what had happened, begging them to let her move to the coast with them,  they told her she should not be such an awful girl.

Another student told me that one morning she had been walking to school with her younger brother when someone pointed out that he had the bigger part of the apple, and that it was because he was a boy. The student was mad, because she knew that it was true, and so in defiance she threw away her part of the apple. When she returned home that night her mother was enraged, one of the neighbors had seen her throw away the apple. Her mother grabbed her by the arm and dragged her down to the river. Pulling her daughter close, she jumped into the river, and neither of them could swim. She shouted at the student that she would rather die than raise a disobedient child. After 5 or 10 minutes of struggling to breathe, the mother finally brought her to shore.

This article is also partially in response to an article on Chinese-style parenting that appeared in the WSJ the other day.